“Reading Loop” is a close reading or discussion by an invited contributor.
Reflections on Transportation (In)accessibility in Nepal
by Bibhuti Shah
It was an evening with a fair amount of traffic. As Baba (my father) and I talked cheerfully about our day, his brakes came to a screeching halt when a white microbus whizzed beside us in the Ring Road of Kathmandu. There, the traffic police are called Traffics. There were Traffics present that evening; there were many people. Yet, the driver almost crushed us. Why, you ask? Because Baba rides around in three wheels instead of two.
When we talk about transportation and mobility access for disabled people in Nepal, it is often ignored how much the roads are unsafe for them. To refer to the prior event, we did go talk with the Traffics later. I had my phone with me when the incident happened, and had managed to take a picture of the microbus’s license plate. Even after we reported it to the Traffics there, no further action was taken.
The unspoken rule of bigger vehicles riding aggressively past smaller vehicles gets more serious with custom motors. Since the scooters used by some people with mobility disabilities have added wheels, they are bulkier on the road than normal motorbikes but more vulnerable than much larger transportation vehicles. Additionally, the scooters like the one my father used were electric, meaning that due to both its size and design, his scooter moved necessarily slower than other vehicles by which it was often surrounded.
While people using custom motors are often subjected to hatred and discrimination, the individuals without their own vehicles have a different world to negotiate as well. My father has had paralysis in his right leg since the time he was an infant. It was only in his mid-forties that he got an electric scooter. The scooter was sponsored because he completed a 12.5 km mini marathon.
Before I remember the scooter motor buzzing in the alley of our apartment complex, dad would come home all tired from his rides in public vehicles. Being an adjunct professor in various local colleges, he had to use multiple modes of transportation, with a couple of his frequent rides occurring during peak hours. More often than not, there would not be space for any additional people. The public transportation drivers and their supervisors commonly perceived or believed that accommodating a person with a disability would have been a feat or an annoyance. Hence, many vehicles’ drivers in Kathmandu instead preferred not to have a disabled person on board.
Growing up in Kathmandu, we barely visited our village. But when we did, it would always be during the festivals. In my 19 years of growing up in the city, I have never seen a person using a wheelchair being accommodated on a long route vehicle. However, I remember my mom responding assertively to people if they tried not letting my dad sit in a comfortable seat. The vehicles that would take us home had extra legroom space in their first rows. I remember once when I was in kindergarten, all of us were in the ninth cloud to go back home. The tickets were ready, everything was finalized. I frolicked to the bus only to see my mom storming at the driver. Turns out, he did not want to take any of us. Pretty simple reason. He had to let dad sit in the first seat, but he had been planning on selling that seat for a higher price.
When I was growing up, instances of mom fighting with bus drivers just to have dad accommodated became a normal routine when we were heading to the village for a visit. While my mother has always had the tenacity and sheer will to communicate candidly with anyone not treating my father right, I wonder about all of the people who have been silenced over time and by life.
As I write this, my having seen a woman using a wheelchair and being pushed around by her young daughter (who must have been only four or five years old) in the midst of a primetime traffic jam comes to mind. While both mother and daughter looked tired, and it seemed like the mom wanted to have her young child seated with her instead of running after her, she was not able to make this happen. They looked at the vehicles; the vehicles’ drivers and occupants looked back at them. But no space was made for the mother and child, nor were any attempts made to create space for and include them.
And there is yet another reason for that as well. The public vehicles in Nepal seldom have lifts or ramps. Even if the new electric vehicles have a mechanism to make them accessible to public transportation, they are either not functional, or people do not know how to use them. Hence, many people using mobility devices still have no access to Nepali public transportation. Accommodations for wheelchairs are massively lacking, thereby further contributing to the inaccessibility of transportation for people with mobility disabilities.
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About the Author
Bibhuti Shah is a first-year undergraduate student at Caldwell University in New Jersey, where she is majoring in Biology and Computer Science. Alongside being passionate about science and technology, Shah is also interested in telling stories and doing calligraphy.